Witness the role of willpower in your daily life: From the moment the alarm sounds in the morning, it's only by sheer determination that you rouse yourself from the warm sheets into the still-dark morning. You grit your teeth when the barista takes 6 minutes to fill your coffee order--never mind those $200 shoes you talk yourself out of buying or the fries you force yourself to leave on your plate at lunch. It's no wonder that by the time 6 pm rolls around, you're waging World War III on your husband for forgetting to pick up the milk on his way home. Again.
Our lives are full of temptations that tax our self-control and drain our willpower, but a new and growing body of research says you can make it through the day without losing your cool --and it isn't as hard as you think.
First, you need to realize that doing anything you don't want to do--suppressing irritation at your mother-in-law, fighting an impulse to do something you shouldn't, completing a task when you want to quit--draws on the same storehouse of willpower. But help is here: According to Roy Baumeister, PhD, director of social psychology at Florida State University, willpower functions like a muscle. It can be fatigued by overuse, but it can also be strengthened to make you more productive, less stressed, and happier. All you need are a few healthy habits to keep your willpower tank on full.
1. Play Offense
When Dr. Baumeister monitored workers in Germany, he was surprised to find that people spent between 3 and 4 hours per day resisting desires, the most common of which were urges to eat, sleep, take a break from work, and have sex. But Dr. Baumeister also found that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did.
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At first he was puzzled. If self-control is for resisting desires, why are people who have more of it using it less? Soon the explanation emerged: They're better at proactively arranging their lives to avoid problem situations. These are the folks who take the car to the shop before it breaks down, give themselves enough time to finish a project, and steer clear of all-you-can-eat buffets. They play offense instead of defense--which means they set themselves up so they have a realistic chance of succeeding.
2. Use The Calm Before It Storms
You can't control--or even predict--the surprise stresses that come into your life, but you can use peaceful moments to take on the stubborn ones. Quitting smoking, cutting back on drinking, having that talk with your spouse--these are all best done during times of low demand in other parts of your life. So if you're starting a new job, don't quit smoking cold turkey the same month. If your marriage is going through a rough patch, don't try to lose those stubborn 10 pounds. And when you know a stressful spell is upon you--tax season, say, or a big deadline at work--ask yourself: How will I expend my willpower today, this evening, and next week?
3. Don’t Dawdle
Procrastination is an almost universal vice--95% of people admit to doing it at least sometimes (and we have no idea who those other 5% are--or whom they're trying to kid). Psychologists have often blamed procrastination on a compulsion to do things perfectly. That sounds right, but Dr. Baumeister and Dianne Tice, PhD, a psychologist at Florida State University, discovered that impulsiveness is more likely behind it. When procrastinators are anxious or bored, they give in to the urge to improve their moods by doing something else. But they're mostly kidding themselves: Eventually, the bill comes due and procrastinators suffer considerably more willpower-depleting stress (and get sick more) than those who work on a schedule. Moral of the story: Bite the bullet and get to work.
4. Always Remember the Basics
As you work toward a goal, you might be tempted to let other things go--like regular meals and a good night's sleep. But what you save in time, you ultimately pay for: It's hard to keep up the hard work when you're tired and hungry. So the next time you feel your will to power through begin to flag, grab a handful of almonds or an apple, and remember that getting your rest is just as important as nutrition when it comes to willpower.
5. Put It In Writing
Keeping track of your progress is crucial for staying on board with any plan. It offers immediate encouragement, and on days when you falter, you can look back at your log for a mental pick-me-up--instead of writing yourself off as a lost cause. Gaining a couple of pounds this week isn't so discouraging if you have a chart showing a line sloping downward for the past 6 months.
6. Reward Yourself Well and Often
Incentives can work wonders. Journalist Esther Dyson--a disciplined daily swimmer--likes to tell how after years of failing to floss regularly, she was finally struck by the right incentive: If she flossed her teeth, she would permit herself to swim 5 fewer minutes the following day. That was 4 years ago, and she has flossed every night since. "Everybody needs to find their own little thing," she says. What's yours?
Adapted from Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, and New York Times journalist John Tierney. It is out now, from the Penguin Press ($28)
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